There are few characters as embedded in the pop culture lexicon as Han Solo, arguably one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. When it was announced that we would be getting a Han Solo origin story, many fans, including myself, met the news with skepticism and trepidation. Harrison Ford is as inseparable from Han Solo as he is from Indiana Jones (another rumored reboot on the horizon), and it’s hard to imagine a younger actor filling his considerable shoes. While I can safely say that his shoes remain unfilled, Solo: A Star Wars story is not without its high points and charming moments. It’s a serviceable, if average, entry in the ever-expanding Star Wars universe under the stewardship of Disney, which, for many Star Wars fans still a bit sore from The Last Jedi, might be more than enough.
Alden Ehrenreich has the unenviable task of playing young Han Solo, and he’s more or less up to the job. Ehrenreich looks vaguely right for the part — if roguishly handsome is right, I guess — and he captures some of Ford’s slow drawl that always felt as if Han were buying time to come up with a better plan; however, he’s inexplicably short at just over 5’9” as compared to Harrison Ford’s above average 6’1”, which immediately diminishes Ehrenreich’s presence onscreen. Considering the cinematic shadow cast by the character of Han Solo, this seems like a very odd choice. In the original trilogy, Harrison Ford was always one of the taller actors onscreen, standing a full head taller than Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, who is also 5’9”, and towering over Carrie Fisher, who is just 5’1”. While you might think that I’m being overly critical of a physical characteristic, for fans of the original trilogy (as well as The Force Awakens), the difference is noticeable and working against Ehrenreich the entire film.
Luckily, the supporting cast is in his corner and is far stronger than supporting players in the first Star Wars spinoff film Rogue One. Where Rogue One inundated the audience with too many flat and static supporting characters that at times looked more or less alike, Solo opts to stick with only a few supporting characters who are a bit more compelling. Han’s love interest at the beginning of the film is Qi’ra, played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke. Clarke is great in what is mostly a thankless role (until the end of the film — more on that later), and she brings a sense of conflict and self doubt to her character that matches well with Han’s unflappable confidence and exuberance. It’s a shame that she isn’t given more to do in the first two acts, but her slowly building character arc could lead to some interesting new directions for the Star Wars universe to explore. Woody Harrelson also does great work as Han’s mentor, Tobias Beckett, a grizzled thief and smuggler who happens to be very Han Solo-ish in more than a few ways (except one) and serves as the apparent source of many of Han’s perspectives on the world (galaxy?). But it’s pointless to talk about supporting characters in Solo without gushing over Donald Glover’s fantastic portrayal of Lando Calrissian. Glover simply sizzles as Lando, nailing Billy Dee Williams’ vocal cadences and mispronunciations (you know what I’m talking about) while somehow elevating the character to another level of cool, a level that makes you desperately want to revisit The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi just to get more of Lando even if it’s not actually as much fun as Glover’s take on the character. Glover works well with Ehrenreich and helps him to embody the character of Han more fully and more naturally, if that makes sense. I would gladly watch more Solo movies if they had Lando in them, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all.
Han’s primary motivation in the film is to return to Corellia where he left Qi’ra behind after a ho-hum opening sequence involving a speeder chase and some stolen something or other that was worth credits/portions/money numbers. It’s an inauspicious beginning, both for the movie and Han, and doesn’t so much wow the audience as make them shrug and say, “I guess that figures.” Han winds up with the Empire fighting in the trenches because he’s insubordinate and free-willed (characteristics that the movie bludgeons us to death with, as if we don’t already know) which resulted in Han getting kicked out of flight school. Whatever. It’s here in the trenches that Han meets Tobias Beckett and his crew, consisting of Val (played by Westworld’s Thandie Newton) and Rio (voiced by Jon Favreau). While Beckett’s cowboy aesthetic is plastered on a bit thick, it’s properly shouldered by Harrelson who does a great job not-caring-but-maybe-he-is-caring throughout the film. He’s a likable outlaw — even when he’s leaving Han behind to be fed to “the beast.” That beast turns out to be Chewbacca, who is surprised to learn that the fast talking Han speaks Wookiee (an unexplained talent and the movie is better for it). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett’s crew for an upcoming heist, and it’s here that the movie literally and figuratively takes off.
The train robbery as seen in the trailers is a fun sequence, and it finally gives Han something to do that remotely resembles the Han Solo we know and love. Daring, yet calm and collected, Han helps keep the plan on track even after the group is attacked by a mysterious pirate named Enfys Nest. It’s an exciting scene with seamless visual effects, and it reminds you that there are many other ways in which storytellers can make the Star Wars universe interesting if they so choose. Because the robbery doesn’t go as planned, Beckett and Han find themselves having to make up for the loss or face death at the hands of Dryden Vos, a boss in the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate (here played by Paul Bettany, who is always a welcome addition, especially when he’s having fun with the role). Surprisingly, Qi’ra is also there — although how she got there is somewhat mysterious and she clearly doesn’t want to explain it to Han. Vos demands restitution and sends Beckett and Han off to Kessel to obtain raw coaxium (just think of it as oil), sending Qi’ra along with them to keep a watchful eye. Sure, it’s a typical payback-style plot that revolves around a debt and a might-be-impossible-to-obtain item, but it’s a fitting start for a young Han Solo and gives the audience a chance to see how Han earned his considerable reputation.
Fortunately, it’s here in the film that we’re treated to Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian, and it immediately enlivens the film. Lando and Han spar both verbally and via a cosmic version of Texas Hold’em as Han attempts to win a ship from Lando. It’s a fun moment in the film, but it also begins to highlight one of Disney’s greatest challenges thus far with the spinoff films. Solo keeps its nods to the original trilogy subtle, but they come often and range in importance from Billy Dee Williams’ inability to say “Han” correctly to transporting the stolen coaxium off of Kessel, leading to one of Han Solo’s most memorable achievements. These references make for great crowd pleasing lines, moments, and even musical cues, but they sometimes feel a bit forced, leaving the practical side of your brain wondering, “all of these things they talked about in the original trilogy happened in the same week?” It betrays the fact that Disney knows there will probably not be a direct follow up movie, so the writers must cram in as many audience-pleasing references as possible while they have the opportunity. When they work, such as the mispronunciation of “Han,” they’re clever and fun and worth the callback; however, when they don’t work, such as Calrissian saying at one point that he hates mining colonies, it feels like pandering to an audience that doesn’t need to be pandered to. (Han’s “I’ve got a really good feeling about this” line from the trailer is a perfect example of this type of misfire as it comes at a moment that really doesn’t make sense considering the context in which it’s said.) Another irritation is Lando’s introduction of L3, his co-pilot droid. L3 is the latest in a long line of comic relief droids that of course stretches back to C-3PO and R2-D2. But do we really need another comic relief droid? Especially one that isn’t as cute as BB-8 or as well written as K-2. L3’s schtick of droid liberation (and feminism?) gets old quick and makes us yearn for the moment we all know is coming when Han will take over the controls of the Millennium Falcon with Chewie.
As the characters make their way to Kessel, they blather on about this and that with the only real kernel of wisdom coming from Beckett who tells Han to expect everyone to betray you. Considering Beckett’s seemingly genuine relationship with Val that we saw earlier in the film, the line once again seems to be in service of building the character of young Han in a way that logically leads to older Han, regardless of the fact that it apparently contradicts what we’ve already seen on-screen. By the time the Millennium Falcon reaches Kessel, we don’t know much more about the characters other than Qi’ra might leave with Han when the mission is over, Lando likes capes, Beckett is always Beckett, and L3 is still annoying. (L3 also has a weird conversation about love with Qi’ra that implies an entirely unexplored aspect of droid sentience and even emotion but is just left to be a lame joke.) The heist on Kessel is entertaining but rushed and confined, not playing out with the scope of the earlier train robbery sequence. At times Solo feels quite small, as though Disney didn’t want to open up the Star Wars wallet too much for the spinoff films that are largely unproven commodities. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the Kessel heist or the closing moments on Savareen. After Han and company obtain the coaxium, they have the problem of escaping Kessel through the Maelstrom, a giant space storm that is full of many dangerous, vaguely explained things. The famous Kessel run (the only safe passage through the storm) is blocked by an Imperial ship, and TIE fighters force the Millennium Falcon to take a shortcut through the heart of the storm. There is only one redeeming quality to this scattered mess of a sequence and that is the musical callback to John Williams’ beautiful score in The Empire Strikes Back when Han pilots the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music from the original trilogy, and it helps to alleviate some of the ridiculousness of the Maelstrom sequence. (John Powell’s score in general is nice and uses the original trilogy music sparingly and effectively.) Han is able to lose the TIE fighters only to be attacked by a giant space monster that lives in the storm, and I fully expected the ghost of Qui-Gon Jinn to appear and say, “there’s always a bigger fish.” Ugh. The chase resolves in a cliche black hole, er, I mean gravity well pulling everything in, and Han tells Beckett to inject a drop of raw coaxium into the Millennium Falcon to give it super powers (more or less). This ruined the mythology of the Kessel run for me on two levels: first, the geography of the Kessel run itself is never accurately explained in the film; second, Han breaks the record by giving the Millennium Falcon super powers rather than as the result of his own flying prowess. Is it still the Kessel run if he just goes in a different direction? Does pouring super fuel into the ship and hoping it doesn’t explode involve any real talent or skill? It’s a horribly anticlimactic resolution to Han Solo’s most well known accomplishment, and it isn’t handled half as well as Han blasting into hyperspace out of a ship’s docking bay or landing at light speed (both from The Force Awakens). This lazy writing is made even more surprising by the fact that longtime Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan was in on the script for Solo.
Thankfully, the film ends with some satisfying moments on Savareen that answer some questions while raising new, far more interesting ones. The double crossing (triple crossing?) that exists between Beckett, Vos, and Solo feels natural and builds to an exciting conclusion. The reintroduction of Enfys Nest further enhances the narrative potential of the ending and future spin-off films, but it’s the resolution of Qi’ra’s story that leaves the audience most excited about what is to come. There is a (potentially) fascinating plotline that hinges on Qi’ra’s future, and it would be unfortunate if we don’t get to see some sort of exploration of this side of the Star Wars universe. We’re also treated to a definitive answer to one of George Lucas’s most controversial changes in Star Wars: A New Hope, and it’s handled very well, falling squarely into the subtly satisfying callback category. The film then wisely chooses to conclude with a rematch between Han and Lando playing cards with the Millennium Falcon hanging in the balance. Lando tells Han about a new job on Tatooine, and Han and Chewie blast off.
As an origin story, Solo falters on many levels. Desperately trying to cram itself with relevant details about its titular character, the film ends up feeling rushed and unfinished. However, as an expansion of the Star Wars universe, Solo shines a light in new directions that take us farther from the Empire and Rebellion and illuminate smaller struggles driven more by nuanced character development rather than the broad narrative strokes that must serve a higher cause. If Solo succeeds at anything, it’s giving Disney the opportunity to move away from the established Star Wars characters, which is clearly contradictory to its reason for existing in the first place.